|The Chelmer Canal Trust's Newsletter||January 2003||Issue 21|
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It is the White House Farm Canal which runs inland for a short distance from the Blackwater estuary, and is referred to in that now classic book dealing with East Coast shipping; "Once Upon a Tide" by Hervey Benham, who mentions a report stating that: " In 1832 Mr J. Marriage of Mundon was about opening a Canal from the channel opposite Northey Island to the former mentioned place to supersede the present circuitous route in which goods are brought to Maldon. The canal is about a mile and a quarter in length, and a lighter of 15 tons has been built for it".
The old canal is shown on Ordnance Survey maps as running from the southern side of the Blackwater estuary opposite Northey Island, not far from the ancient causeway leading to the Island. It runs inland in a southerly direction and terminates at a farm called White House Farm. Prior to the works by the River Authority much of the lower end was dry although its course could be traced as a shallow outline through the marshy meadows. In its upper reaches it resembled a small stream flowing between fields but its straight course and even bends betrayed its artificial origin.
Until the River Authority carried out their works the remains of the entrance lock into the Blackwater still remained; they were apparently modelled on the sea lock at Heybridge Basin which is the entrance to the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation situated about a mile away on the opposite side of the estuary. Although much smaller than the former, it had the same banked sides and brick walls facing the salt water. When I first saw it the lock chamber had been infilled with earth and faced on the outer side by concrete blocks.
It is not difficult to understand the reason why the canal was originally constructed. Maldon in 1852 was a thriving and well-used port and the natural centre for the whole area for both trade and social needs. White House Farm is set on higher land well inland from the estuary, and, unlike many of the farms in the area, had no convenient creek which could be used for the transportation of goods, at that time overwhelmingly carried by Thames barges and lighters.
Farmers would need to take their produce to, and obtain supplies from, Maldon. The overland route was tortuous and over low-lying ground which to this day is liable to flood. For the latter reason it was probably impassable for much of the year to the heavy, cumbersome wagons then in use. A more direct route from the farm to Maldon would be to use the river Blackwater, if a means could he devised, of getting there from the farm, preferably using a means that would avoid extra loading and unloading. A canal was thus the obvious answer - and one, would have come readily to mind as in 1830 the neighbouring Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation, was in its peak use with cargoes of all kinds being carried to and from Heybridge Basin along the navigation to the villages and towns along the route to Chelmsford.
A further advantage of using water transport was that it could be used for most of the year.
It is not known how long this little waterway was operated but it is likely that it remained in use for many years and terminated only when transportation requirements changed, either as a result of changes in farming in the area, or through improvements to road access to the farm. Until that time, no doubt the lighter, or lighters, moved up and down with bulk goods of all kinds. Local folklore has it that the lighter was abandoned and sunk somewhere along the waterway.
The River Authority brought over a mile of the old channel back into use, this time as a high level water course to drain the high land lying to the north of the marshland flanking the estuary. Mud and silt was excavated from the channel and the height of the original embankments was increased. At the same time the old lock site was excavated and a new sluice inserted to control the flow of water from the canal. The excavations revealed that the floor of the lock was constructed of soft red bricks (no doubt locally made) on a raft of timber sections with chalk beneath and between the timbers. The walls of the chamber were of the same brick and about 14 inches thick. The width of the chamber was 20 feet and its length about 42 feet. When the works were carried out the lock gates had long since disappeared but the cill, a massive 8-inch square baulk of pine, was still in position and in relatively good condition. It is, however, unfortunately not clear whether there was ever an upper pair of gates, or whether the lock acted merely as a pair of tidal doors opening only when the incoming tide made a level with the fresh water in the canal. It is also unfortunate that in inserting the new sluice the lock was destroyed and no accurate records were made or photographs taken of this unique industrial historic monument.
A mystery still remains about the fate of the old lighter, no trace being found during the excavation, although it is possible that it is somewhere in the section not dug out or in the remains of the old terminal basin next to the farm buildings. One must assume though, that the dimensions of the lock provide a clue of its size. In width, it could not have exceeded 20 feet and since it is not known for certain whether there was ever an upper pair of gates, its length is uncertain.
One may, however, speculate whether, in fact, Chelmer canal barges may have been used from time to time on this little waterway, as many would have existed during that era and with the dimensions of 16 feet by 60 feet long and a draft of only 2 feet they could have readily navigated the waterway. Certainly their remains have been found in nearby creeks.
The first thing is to list the mills owned or run by the Marriage's on the Chelmer river. The three I give here are of course not on the navigation. Croxton's at Little Waltham was a small grist mill. A large 14ft wheel drove five pairs of stones. Milling farmer's grist or meal for sale from the mill stocks, it was run by one man, Charlie Freeman, who I recall very well. He lived on the spot, in the mill cottage.
His predecessor was called Keeble. The story goes that ages ago there were serious floods preventing his wife getting home by the usual lane - so she went back to Broomfield Mill which was fordable and then re-crossed the river to Croxton's. Keeble, her husband, was not pleased and said: "You shouldn't have done that - that's a very bad luck to cross the same water twice"!
Croxton's is very tall with a steeply pitched roof -wooden built, as a result it "moved" when it felt like it! This meant that the joints "gave" which caused the bin contents to run into the river. Charlie Freeman said that he had "to load her carefully" or lose his stock.
Immediately downstream of Croxton's is a public ford joining two lanes. It has a "trick" turn in it midstream. The horses puling the hay wagons had to be carefully driven round its bend to get to the opposite bank or risk getting out of their depths.
My father sold the mill in 1942 for a minute sum because it was no longer viable and in bad repair. It was bought by Bob Driver, the scrap merchant. Today it is very posh as offices with rows of cars parked outside. As a boy I remember that when my father drove there in his old car we had difficulty turning around.
Just, downstream, perhaps a mile away, is Broomfield Mill. My old relatives were pioneers of steam when they bought a second-hand steam engine in 1836 for '145! This enabled them, for the first time, to continue milling when water levels were low. In 1852 the engine was replaced by a Wentworth, which drove no less than ten pairs of stones in conjunction with the water wheel. The mill was demolished after World War I. The house remains and is the home of Peter Marriage.
Bishops Hall Mill stands a mile or so further downstream. The mill is so named because it belonged to the Bishop of London until the Dissolution. In 1795 Joseph Marriage, and then other s, worked it until 1914. There is a stone at Moulsham Mill inscribed with the words: "John Strutt, Miller, Millwright, built this mill, Bishops Hall, 1716". "This mill" presumably refers to Moulsham Mill but it would seem that Strutt regarded Bishops Hall as his address. The latter had an engine fitted mid -19th century and in 1891 ran eight pairs of stones. The whole site was then taken over by Hoffman's, the house becoming the chairman's dining room.
These three mills are upstream of Moulsham Mill and the navigation but their influence, and that of Springfield Mill, on the flow of the Chelmer through Chelmsford must have been considerable.
Barnes Mill also had a Marriage as the incumbent miller but he was not our branch of the family.
Another thing that comes to mind is that each water mill usually had a windmill associated with it. Croxton's, yes, up the hill at Ayletts; at Broomfield, Digbys, on the hill above the river; at Moulsham, a windmill closely adjacent, in this case at river level so it couldn't have caught much wind. I have no knowledge of one at Bishops Hall Mill
Now we will have to persuade Henry to overcome his reluctance to tell us some of his stories of Moulsham Mill where he once was the resident miller.
. In addition to being President of the Trust he is also associated with a number of other voluntary groups in Essex, mainly the Ingatestone and Brentwood area, including the Ingatestone and Fryerning Angling Club. Lord Petre has a long-standing interest in water activities and once rowed for Trinity College; it was, of course, one of his ancestors who promoted the Chelmer Navigation Act.
He was previously a Deputy Lieutenant for Essex, an appointment he has held since 1991
The Chairman of the Company, A. M. St. J. Cramphorn reported a difficult year which had largely arisen from the severe winter flooding in 2000/01, when considerable erosion and silting took place. The worst was below Hoe Mill Lock where a 150-foot length of the northern bank was eroded, almost back to the gravel pits beyond, as well as substantial shoaling opposite. There was also serious silting and erosion at Cuton Lock and Stonhams Lock. In addition the Long Pond at Beeleigh was blocked by silt from the River Blackwater. However, through navigation has been restored. Consequently, the costs of operating and maintaining the Navigation were in excess of earnings.
To overcome the current financial problems both Little Baddow Mill House and The Old Ship public house at Heybridge Basin had been sold (the latter with a lease back arrangement), also steps were being taken to reduce staffing levels. The Company had also decided to form a non- profit making trust to receive the ownership of the locks and weirs so that they can apply for grants to repair, maintain and renew them as necessary; existing directors of the company have been appointed trustees. As a result of these changes the Chairman said that he looked to the future with confidence
Denys Harrison came to Heybridge Basin, like so many others at the end of World War II, attracted by the sea and boats. Here was a quiet corner of Essex where he could get afloat, enjoy the tidal flows of the estuary and relax ashore in friendly pubs which time had passed by. For him it was a heady experience, more seductive than he could have imagined, for he succumbed to the charms of one of the local natural beauties and stayed for good.
He married into one of the celebrated Basin families, the Clarks, who were a major force in the life of the village, with a skilled hand in everything. So, almost overnight, Denys became "a Basiner", whereas it took other "incomers" years to earn the respect required.
Living on the lock hill in part of the former pub, The Chelmer Brig, he was well placed over the ensuing years to watch the comings and goings of ships and mariners; and see how the locals coped with the hardships of earning a living in such a remote spot. His adopted "extended" family told him about their ups and downs and those of their forebears: how they fished, shot wild fowl, built boats and houses, broke up ships, looked after yachts, ran pubs, loaded and unloaded cargoes, played, prayed, learned, made merry, and coped with extended freeze-ups, violent storms and floods.
Recently Denys realised that the forces of modern economic change were taking their toll on village life: local jobs were being lost as industries closed or were relocated elsewhere. The timber ships and eel boats stopped coming from Scandinavia. Eventually, the seafarers, longshoremen and "old salts" left the scene to be replaced by "incomers" in new houses to whom the culture and spirit of the Basin had to be somehow passed on. So Denys set about writing the Basin's story ( The Story of a Waterside Community 1796-2002 ): from Borrow Marsh with the building of the canal in 1793, to the arrival of the ships, the building of the first houses and shops, the lock house, the Chelmer Brig, the Jolly Sailor, the chapel and the reading room. He tells of the real hardship of the times through the eyes and words of the "Basiners": an invaluable piece of Essex social history. He is a natural storyteller with a love of his subject(s) and his affection for them all shines through.
What emerges is a kaleidoscope of characters that became legends in their own lifetime. Elderly spinster, "Aunt" Dinah, lived on Rat Island opposite the lock, where she was occasionally flushed out of bed by the extra high tides; she sought comfort in generous tots of gin and was renowned for her preparatory incantation: "Through the lips, Round the gums, Look out belly, Here it comes". "Dilbury" Clarke was at times the foreman of the timber gang, a marine engineer, a river pilot, and a barge skipper. "Tulip" Clarke, nicknamed after his canal horse, walked daily along the towpath to Chelmsford and back, spending some nights in the bothy at Paper Mills, Little Baddow. Before he became the lock keeper in1972, "Trooper", George Clarke, looked after the live eels, which came by boat from Holland and America. Mona, another Clarke, the youngest of ten children, was born and bred in The Jolly Sailor, eventually taking over from her mother, "Grannie" Jane Clark, who, aged 92 years, was the oldest licensee in England. There was always a homely atmosphere at Mona's pub where everyone was accepted and welcomed.
There are many other "Basiners", all with something special to add to the richness of village life. "The Basiners" have always had to be flexible, having had to learn to respond to sudden changes in employment, weather, freak tides, foreign ships with, sometimes, unruly crews. Now they have to respond to the changes of modern times. Consequently they have taken the "incomers" under their wing and have begun involving them in the Basin's ways: the regatta, charity events, socials, coffee mornings, bric-a- brac sales for the church, a herring eating competition and singsongs in the pub. Thus the heart and soul of the place is kept healthy and strong.
Denys' story takes us as far as 2002, but beyond, on the horizon, one can spot the good ship Heybridge Basin, formerly crewed by "Tish", "Tulip", "Dilbury", "Colonel Custard", "Cocker", "Twinny", "Gabby", "Maxim", "Starchy", "Snap Eye", Mona, and George et al, sailing a steady course under the command of a new crew, who are navigating with an old chart, one so meticulously and lovingly prepared by Denys Harrison: The Story of a Waterside Community 1796-2002.
Reported by Judith AbbottThere was sun, fun, and dancing into the night on the banks of the River Chelmer in September.
Gathered at Sandford Lock, were members of the Chelmer Canal Trust, their friends and guests. This was the "alternative" Boat Rally which is usually held in Springfield Basin. Boats travelled up from Paper Mill Lock to enjoy an evening by the river. The evening kicked off with a sizzling BBQ, followed by entertainment from Terry Peters who travelled up in his narrow boat called Mr Badger. He and a colleague entertain as the singing duo "Out to Lunch". The music went on throughout the evening with music from the 60's 70's and 80's. This prompted a bit of foot tapping a lot of dancing never seen before along a canal towpath! Blackwater Boats erected a marquee and awning just in case of inclement weather but it stayed dry.
During the evening a raffle was held to help boost Chelmer Canal Trust funds. We also had a BBQ on the Sunday for boats that could not make it up to the Saturday event. Everyone enjoyed themselves and Terry, who provided the entertainment free of charge, volunteered the duo for next year.
On Sunday, the trip boat "Blackwater Rose" took passengers for trips along the River Chelmer; for most it was a first, having never been on the river before.
So why not join us this year at our next boating rally and go "Out to Lunch" on the banks of the Chelmer and Blackwater.
Funds have been committed by the above and will be supplemented by grants from charitable sources: English Heritage, Essex Environment Trust, Inland Waterways Association, Chelmer Canal Trust, The Lottery Heritage Initiative, and The Countryside Agency, with possible additional funding from Lloyds /TSB, The Waterways Trust and the European Tourism Fund. In addition there will be substantial element of "costed" volunteer labour.
The main projects in the programme are lock gate, weir, bridge and winding gear replacement. Immediate concerns are the locks at Springfield, Barnes, Sandford and Hoe Mill. There are plans for an interpretation centre at Springfield Basin, improved access to the Industrial Heritage Centre at Sandford, a purpose built dock for the barge Susan, new landing stages and moorings in Chelmsford, information boards, and dredging and improved access at Bishops Mill, Chelmsford
The Chelmer Canal Trust reported that it would be soon be ready to supply the two new information boards for Hoe Mill and Sandford locks and that a towpath and lock survey of the navigation had been completed
Peter Spurrier of Essex County Council has been carrying out regular surveys on behalf of the River Users' Group over the last three years. His latest, very detailed, report was presented to the meeting. Some of its salient points were as follows: handpicking definitely slows the growth progress of the weed. In Chelmsford where intensive handpicking had been tried the weed has been greatly reduced (the Environment Agency who carried out the work said that it takes a team five working days a year to keep it under control).
The places where mechanical removal has been carried out have also shown reduced growth.
This was noticeable last year particularly, but this year, when less time was spent on mechanical removal, the growth has accelerated considerably. The stretch between Beeleigh Weir and Heybridge Basin is worse than ever before.
Chris Adams of the Environment Agency confirmed that handpicking was effective but that other methods may have to be used on low muddy places where the weed had a good root foundation. He said the Agency at the Axminster Marshes had had to resort to the complete removal of all bankside soil and vegetation and had had to replant the banks. He reported that the herbicide, Diquat, is an effective herbicide but that from July this year it has been banned from sale - it was not clear whether existing stocks could still be used. He thought that some controlled use might be agreed by the regulatory bodies (Diquat is currently used on roadside verges).
Jonathan Newman, director of the Centre for Aquatic Plant Management at Rothamsted, informed the meeting by letter that measures were to be taken at Government level to bring in national controls on the sale of pennywort. He confirmed that mechanical removal is effective but that it disturbs the bank side vegetation. Experiments are proceeding with use of alternative herbicides to Diquat and he considers that a combination of mechanical removal combined with the use of chemicals is probably the best way forward for a river as badly infested as the Chelmer.
"A colony of scarce native crayfish has been relocated to secure accommodation after its freshwater habitat was invaded by deadly North American cousins. In the first operation of its kind, 100 or so native crayfish were rescued by Agency staff and volunteers from the threatened small stillwater near Loughborough in August. They were acting on a tip-off from a member of the public who had spotted signal crayfish, a disease-carrying alien species, in a nearby stream. The alert came after the Agency published a guide and code to help people distinguish the vulnerable native - or white clawed - species from the predatory invader. The rescued crayfish are now being monitored for signs of disease in secure outdoor tanks at the Agency's Trentside base while an alternative freshwater site is prepared to receive them. So far they have received a clean bill of health."
"Exotic plants commonly sold in garden centres pose a much greater threat to Britain's natural environment than any genetically modified crop, the head of Britain's most prestigious scientific institution (Lord May of Oxford, the President of the Royal Society) said yesterday'Invasive species alien to Britain were causing great ecological damage. Plants sold through garden centres were escaping into the wild, where they clogged rivers and ponds and ruined natural habitats'''harmful species included Japanese knotweed, rhododendron, floating pennywort, parrot's feather, water ferns and water hyacinths. These were super weeds unlike the hybrids formed when conventional or GM crops cross-pollinated with wild relations'..While environmental groups such as Plantlife and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds showed great concern about this threat (invasive weeds) to native wildlife, other lobbyists had overlooked the issue, he said'''"
My first visit was on 4th April 1972 when a friend and I set out to walk the towpath. Having found Springfield Basin (it was not visible then), we were surprised to find barges being unloaded at the timber yard. We knew next to nothing about the navigation as, being isolated from the network, there seemed to be little information available.
Once beyond the (then) Chelmsford Bypass viaduct, we were impressed by the unspoiled countryside all the way to Heybridge. I was going to say unbroken peace, but towards Barnes Mill a loaded barge passed us and I well remember the incredible noise of the Harbourmaster engine and the fact that the crew had no accommodation whatsoever! I believe I am right in saying that the steel barges built for the timber traffic were the first and only powered craft on the canal, apart, of course from the seagoing craft at the Heybridge end. The extensive moorings at Hoe Mill and Paper Mill would not then have existed. Unfortunately, my last photo of the day was Bundocks Bridge as a camera fault meant I lost the remainder of the film. At least I recorded the loaded barge!
At Beeleigh Lock an empty barge caught up with us, with the same crew as had passed us earlier. We accepted their offer of a lift but they abandoned the trip before the yacht moorings at Heybridge as the wind had become so strong they were not prepared to risk being blown against one of these expensive craft. The crew told us they thought the timber traffic would cease shortly but no-one seems to know exactly when that took place.
Cruising the waterway is always very different from walking it and my wife and I discovered several deficiencies which I have brought to the attention of the navigation company. No doubt you are well aware of them! I was however, very pleased to note that the navigation has not changed, apart from the A12 intrusion and some development around Maldon/Heybridge. Springfield Basin is another issue and I can only say how forlorn it looked - ours was the only boat there. I remember the entrance lock becoming derelict when commercial traffic ceased and although restored , its condition is not good. When the adjoining flats are all occupied, and the mooring basin filled with boats, perhaps some new life with be breathed into the area.
I would recommend this unique waterway to anybody, despite one major drawback which hasn't changed in thirty years - the lack of waterside pubs!
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Some useful phone numbers:Chelmer Canal Trust - 01621 892231